Winter is coming, but I am still eking out the last of the summer vegetables in the kitchen. The approaching months of pumpkin, swede, turnip, celeriac, potato, cabbage and kale will last long enough, without extending the season further by embracing them too quickly. Although they seem like summer vegetables the reality is that peppers reach peak ripeness in the polytunnel in mid-October, as do the summer sown fennels in the vegetable beds. Together with aubergines and the beans I grew for drying this year, these made up the bulk of my harvest on return from holiday three weeks ago.
The aubergines we ate quickly, as they are not good keepers, but the fennel and peppers store so well in the salad drawer of the fridge that, although this recipe uses the very last of the fennel, I will be looking for more ways to use the peppers in the coming week, as this year’s crop was outstanding, with nine plants each producing at least six fruits. A romesco sauce is on the cards, though not made with our own walnuts as intended, since the squirrels got them all before me. A tomato and red pepper soup with a generous addition of our homegrown paprika will provide a warming lunch. And, if all else fails, nothing beats Elizabeth David’s Piedmont peppers, halved and filled with anchovies, oil and garlic before a blast in a hot oven.
Today’s recipe is essentially a stew, but it can be used in many different ways. Tonight we shall be eating it on mounds of creamy polenta enriched with copious amounts of butter and Parmesan. A side of dark cavolo nero will add the necessary bitter contrast to the sweetness of the onion, fennel and pepper. Roast chicory or radicchio, or indeed a salad of either, would do a similar job. It makes a chunky sauce for the more robust and large types of pasta, like paccheri and rigatoni, and works well in a pasta bake, as long as the beans are covered with a good layer of cheese and breadcrumbs to prevent them drying out and scorching. You could also serve this warm on garlic rubbed bruschetta, perhaps with ricotta or burrata or a cloud of grated pecorino. Add more stock and it becomes a hearty, rustic soup perfect for dipping hunks of sourdough into.
Our borlotti beans were also particularly productive this year and are so delicious that I am going to have to exercise some restraint not to eat them all at this end of the season. You could make this using fresh borlotti earlier in the season, but the red peppers are fewer then, so the fennel will take a more central role. You can, of course, add tomatoes to this, but I find that they dominate the other flavours, which for me are more reminiscent of the last days of summer, without their acidic tang.
250g dried borlotti beans, cooked, or 500g canned beans
2 large red onions – 600g
3 bulbs fennel – 600g
6 red peppers – 750g
3 large cloves garlic
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
150ml olive oil
150ml white wine
Vegetable stock or water
Put the peppers on a baking tray under a hot grill. Alternatively place them directly on a gas burner. Use tongs to turn them regularly until they are charred all over. Put them into a bowl. Cover and leave until cold.
Gently heat the olive oil in a large lidded pan or casserole. Lightly crush the fennel and coriander seeds. Chop the garlic finely. Add all of these to the pan and warm in the oil until fragrant.
Cut the onions into wedges, leaving enough of the root end intact to hold the slices together. Add to the pan with a good pinch of salt. Put the lid on and sweat over a low heat until starting to soften. About 20 minutes.
Trim the stalks and root end from the fennel bulbs. Again leave the base of the bulb intact. Slice into wedges. Add to the pan. Stir gently to mix the vegetables. Raise the heat a little. Replace the lid and cook for a further 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Add the beans and wine to the pan and cook for another 20 minutes until the vegetables are soft, but still holding their form.
Rub the skins from the peppers with a cloth. Rinse quickly under the tap to remove any stubborn burnt skin. Remove the cores, membranes and seeds and slice into lengths about a centimetre wide.
Add the peppers to the pan. Add a little more stock or wine if need be. Stir to combine and cook for another 20 to 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and transfer to a serving dish.
Recipe & photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 4 November 2023